Immersive and challenging are two words I’d use to describe Fresno State’s production of “The Sty of the Blind Pig.” Leisurely is another that might be charitably used when discussing Phillip Hayes Dean’s early 1970s play, which digs deeply into the lives of a poor black family in 1950s Chicago unaware that history is on the cusp of the civil rights movement. A less charitable way to put it would be slow-paced.
Whatever your affinity is for prose-intense three-act dramas — this one clocks in at more than two and a half hours including one intermission — it’s clear that director Thomas-Whit Ellis was intent on making audiences feel and think. I admire his commitment to the material, along with his cast’s. Though I found parts of the experience something of a slog, I was moved at times by the tenacity with which these characters came to life. (The show continues 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday at the Woods Theatre.)
“Sty of the Blind Pig” — yes, it’s an odd title, of which we learn the meaning in a climactic third-act revelation — is primarily the story of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its attendant complications and dysfunctions. Weedy Warren (Francine Oputa), the elderly mother, is pious, cranky and desperate to keep her adult unmarried daughter, Alberta (Breayre S. Tender), under her thumb. Together they share a dilapidated apartment in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods.
Far from being an eager-to-please Mama’s Girl, however, Alberta is something of a rebel even as she supports the household by working a dreary job taking care of someone else’s children. It’s clear from the opening scenes that she’s an alcoholic, and she seems addicted to prescription medication as well. (She shares the alcohol problem with her chipper uncle, Doc, played by a dapper De’Andre L. Jean-Pierre). Though she participates in the daily life of her church — which is the whole world to her mother — Alberta’s own religious tendencies seem to waver. She feels trapped and lonely, and her mother is just fine with that.
All that changes when the playwright, using a well-worn trope, introduces a mysterious traveling stranger into the mix. Blind Jordan (Myles Bullock) knocks at the door one day when Alberta is home alone, and his smooth charm captivates her.
This isn’t a play with a hard-driving narrative but one more interested in a richly constructed, intimate slice-of-life immersion in a historical period. The “outside” world — what you might consider the dominant white culture at large — is left to the periphery. But the rumblings from that world are always present, and from within the cocoon of the play, as we learn that some in society are preparing to fight for civil rights, it’s clear that change is in the air.
Ellis stages the action in Weedy and Alberta’s living room in the round, which gives a nice intimacy — but did make it hard at times at the Saturday performance I saw to hear the dialect-heavy dialogue when actors had their backs turned. Kelly Pantzlaff Curry’s smart period costumes add to the impact.
Ellis also brings a live, 12-voice choir into the mix, which sets the scene with old spirituals during scene transitions and for an important church-service scene. (Marc Garcia’s lighting and sound design is unremarkable.) I liked the idea of the choir, but the vocals on such well-known tunes as “Amazing Grace” seemed tentative in terms of volume and presence. Plus, practically speaking, the choral interludes serve to add even more to the lengthy running time.
Ellis draws some fine moments from his cast. (He himself has an explosive cameo as a pulpit-pounding preacher in a flashback scene, a highlight.) Oputa is a powerful presence on stage, shuffling across the stage with her cane, and she finds within her character an intriguing combination of narrow-eyed nastiness and motherly warmth. Bullock is another standout — it’s the best performance I’ve seen from him at Fresno State — with a spot-on turn as the beguiling, non-threatening (but also slightly menacing) Blind Jordan.
I admire many moments in Tender’s portrayal of Alberta. It’s a tough role, and I think she could have been more strongly directed in the role. I was never quite sure if Alberta is shrewd or just a little dim, and her complicated relationship with her mother always seemed a little fuzzy to me, as if I could never really get inside what this character is really all about. But considering her heavy line load and the subtleties she’s called upon to play, Tender has a sturdy stage presence.
That sturdiness extends to the play itself. It’s no light-hearted, fast-paced lark. But if you’re willing to hunker down and let yourself be absorbed into the material, “Sty of the Blind Pig” offers its own challenging rewards.